Refugee center seeks out and offers help

ROCHESTER — Sabitra Duhal left her native Bhutan at the age of 9 and spent the next 22 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.

As she made placemats at a sewing machine in the Refugees Helping Refugees Center on March 15, she talked about resettling in Rochester more than a year ago along with her mother and several siblings. She began coming to the center in November after being referred by the Monroe County Department of Social Services.

In addition to classes in English as a Second Language, she also attends sewing classes presented weekly at the center, which is located on the second floor of the Greek Orthodox Church on South Avenue.

"Every day, I’m learning English," she added. "English is hard."

Lisa Barnick of Fairport volunteers to teach the sewing class, which she said usually attracts about six people. She learned about the center from friends at Browncroft Community Church.

"It is interesting to hear people’s stories," she said. "I appreciate what they’ve gone through."

Although she said she is not the best seamstress, but Barnick said she enjoys helping class participants any way she can. Most of the materials and equipment have been donated for their use.

Barnick said she also plans to start teaching participants to use the center’s industrial sewing machines so they can gain new skills to obtain jobs. With the addition of a second volunteer, the sewing class is also expanding to two days a week.

As she cut fabric for a skirt for her 13-year-old daughter, Zeynab Abdulkadir of Somalia said it is especially helpful for her to make clothes at the center because she has nine children ages 2 to 13. Her family moved to Rochester five years ago. She and her siblings had left Somalia in 1992 after their parents’ deaths and lived at a refugee camp in Kenya. She moved to Arizona in 2002.

Abdulkadir also was referred to the center by DSS. Through the classes, she said she has improved her English skills as well as her sewing, and she recently found work as a home-health aide.

"They’re good," Abdulkadir said of the center’s volunteers. "They help a lot."

Sabitra Dahal (left), a refugee from Bhutan, works on a sewing project March 15 at at Refugees Helping Refugees, a community center in Rochester.

The center is staffed entirely by volunteers except for the four ESL teachers, who are paid by OASIS, a community education organization, explained Louise Bennett, the center’s interim director. About 50 people attend the daily English classes.

Many refugees are referred to the center by the resettlement program of Catholic Family Center, said Sadiya Omar, vice president of Refugees Helping Refugees.

"Because of the experience and challenges you faced as a refugee, you are the one who can understand better," added Omar, who is originally from Somalia.

The group was founded in 2002 as the Somali Community in Western New York after Omar connected with Bennett, who had been working with women at a local health center. The group originally operated out of the apartments of its members, Omar said.

When Bennett retired, Omar convinced her to work as a volunteer translator for the group, which originally focused on translation, advocacy and case management. Today, volunteers continue to accompany refugees to schools, doctor’s offices and hospitals to provide interpretation and intervention if needed, Bennett said.

As the group also began helping refugees from other nations — including Nepal, Burma, Iraq, Cambodia and Cuba — it moved into the church’s classroom space in 2014 and changed its name to Refugees Helping Refugees, Bennett said.

"The idea was to have refugees helping refugees become self-sufficient so they can become agents of their own advancement and pursue their own American dreams," she remarked.

Many of the refugees who come to the center are older, so several years ago Refugees Helping Refugees added a weekly program for senior citizens, she added. The seniors receive information and advice about nutrition and health from medical students, and participate in such hands-on activities as cooking classes or artistic endeavors like making a mandala, a geometric design made famous by Tibetan monks.

The senior program grew out of home visits to refugees, who were isolated because of language barriers and cultural differences, Bennett said.

"They don’t adapt to a new culture like young people," Omar added.

In 2010 the center also began offering an intergenerational summer program to help older refugees practice their English and to help children learn more about their families’ native cultures, Bennett said.

To continue expanding the center’s offerings, Refugees Helping Refugees is always looking for more volunteers, said Bennett, who noted that about 150 volunteers currently serve the center’s participants. And organizers would love to offer child care to the families who come to classes, Bennett added.

"There lots of things we can do but we have to have the man power," she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To volunteer or for more information about the Refugees Helping Refugees center, visit

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